Chely Wright struggled through most of the 1990s to establish herself as a hit-maker and finally climbed to No. 1 with “Single White Female” in 1999. Five years later, it’s still her only Top 10 hit, but she’s hoping to change that with “Back of the Bottom Drawer,” her first single for the newly-formed Vivaton Records. Though the album doesn’t arrive until late summer, she recently talked to a group of reporters about signing to a new label, the importance of humility and recording her first religious song.
Q: Why did you find Vivaton so attractive? Why did you think, ‘I want to sign to this label?’
Wright: I know, speaking for myself — Shelia Shipley. [Sheila Shipley Biddy is Vivaton’s vice president of national radio promotion and artist development.] I want to be on radio. Let me give a stat here and let me try to get it correct. There are like eight or nine … VPs of promotion at different labels around town, and she trained seven or eight or them. She is the template after which promotion is formed. Scott Borchetta, one of the best promotion guys in town, will tell you who he learned from — and it’s Shelia. For years she was getting the Lee Ann Womack and the Gary Allan songs up the charts and killing mine, so I wanted to finally be on her team. We’re finally on the same team, and [Vivaton president and CEO] Jeff Huskins has a great vision and excitement. He’s a musician himself, and he has a great vision and excitement for helping an artist grow and become, “Be all that you can be.”
Oddly enough, it’s taken my sixth album, but I’m learning some lessons that I wish I would have learned back then. But it’s OK because I’m a sum of my parts. I don’t think I’ve ever had a chance this good, and I’m talking about even being on a major [label], even being [former MCA Nashville executive] Tony Brown’s baby when I was over there. I’ve never had a focus like this before. [MCA] certainly got me a few hits, and they believed in me, but they’re a company, and they had singles to put out after me. If mine kind of stumbled a little bit, I got smothered. That’s not going to happen at Vivaton.
What lessons have your learned?
I learned that I like to sweat the small stuff, but I think it’s important. You’ve probably read that book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. [Wal-Mart founder] Sam Walton said the difference is sweating the small stuff, but I was kind of doing it too much. I was trying to control everything. Music is like art. It’s subjective, and radio’s going to like what they want. I really had to just come off the road and check my pride and just go, “Shoot, what am I doing?” I had to dig down deep and write some songs and find some songs. I just couldn’t stay in the machine and cut fluff. It just didn’t work for me. So, the lesson? A lot of humility. I’ve learned a lot of humility and pride and patience.
What is it about this new single that you think will send you up the charts?
That’s a great question. Again I’m not certain what it is about this song, but I knew that when Liz [Rose] and I wrote it that it felt special. The marriage of the melody and the lyric, they feel dynamic to me. They feel different to me. I mean, I know music theory, and I know I wrote the music, so I know it starts on the five and it goes to a one minor. It’s weird but it’s still country, and I feel like I am the girl that’s got stuff in the back of the bottom drawer. I’m 33 years old, I’ve got a couple of champagne corks, and those are my stories, and I don’t have to tell about it.
One of the things that’s very different about you is your fan base and the amazing support whether you are on a label or not on a label. How have the fans sustained you during your time off?
It’s a multifaceted answer, but I’ll sum it up in saying that country fans, against any genre of fan bases, obviously they’re the best. They’re the most die-hard. Hip-hop, I know they’ve got their fans. Rock ‘n’ roll, they’ve got their fans. ‘N Sync, they’ve got their fans until they grow old enough to drive. Did I say that? I didn’t mean to say that.
I’ve got fans that are in the fan club that have been there since my very first album. I’ll just have to tell you, it’s because Minnie Pearl told me, way back before I got a record deal, she said, “When you go to a town, if I catch you just going out there just singing your songs, I’ll find you, and I’ll tan your hide.” She said, “Leave a piece of yourself in every town and talk to those people, look ’em in the eye.” She said, “Some people will come to your show, and that will be the only concert they ever see.” That’s sobering. That’s heavy when you really think about it. When I have dealt with my fans, I know who they are. There are thousands of them, but I know a lot of them by name.
Tony Brown told me when he signed me with MCA, “You know, you remind me of Reba McEntire.” I thought, “Oh that’s great, thank you.” I thought he was going to say I was a great singer, but he said, “You know, you’re not the greatest singer in the world, but you know what? You want it as bad as Reba does.” And he said, “Reba will tell you she’s not the greatest singer in the world, but she’s true to her fans. She knows what her fans want. Nobody knows better than Reba what they want.” I have to have that relationship with the fan base. They’ve kept me in tour dates. When my single was very close to becoming No. 1, they are the ones that put it over the top and made it No. 1. I think I have the best fan club in all of country music. We’ve often been heralded as the best fan club, the best Web site, and I’m very proud of that. They’re no dummies. They know a lot more than we think they know, and I take great stock in what they think.
Can you talk about the anticipation to be able to present this new music to them?
It was killing them because they were like “Why?” At first, they all thought I got dropped from MCA. I don’t like to talk about business publicly, we don’t need to talk about that, but I said, “No, you guys, this is a good thing that I’m not at MCA.” They all just wanted me to run right out and sign a record deal. My position was, “We don’t know where all the bodies have landed yet because we’ve had a major shake-up in the past 18 months.” So I waited and I waited, and I passed on a couple of opportunities with the faith that something was going to happen. Finally when we were able to put it on the Web site — “Hey, we’ve found a home” — oh, my God! I went on and chatted with them. They were wild. I think we stayed up until 4 in the morning chatting. They’ve been so excited, so supportive. Even like last year on the benefit show, I didn’t have a deal at the time. Did that mean we didn’t sell out the house and rock the house? We had a great time, and this year we’re going to have something to celebrate, in addition to the fact that Martina’s doing the show, along with Josh Turner and Jimmy Wayne, and it’s all for Reading, Writing & Rhythm [Wright’s non-profit organization providing musical instruments to schools]. We’re going to raise a ton of money.
There is a lot of spirituality now that’s entering music. Do you have any material like that, or do you have an explanation for why that might be happening?
I think it might be happening because we underwent a big trauma in 2001, and it rocked us as a culture. I think people weren’t afraid to identify that “I’m Christian” or “I’m Jewish” or “I’m Catholic” — whatever it may be. I think we all started standing up a little bit quicker and stating that, “Hey, I’m a believer.” Fans need that. You look to every time after there’s a war, country music goes crazy. Country music gets huge. It’s historically proven after Vietnam, after Korea. Country music thrives because people want a voice of America, and country music is the voice of America.
You ask if I have a spiritual song? I’ve always been asked, “Are you ever going to cut a Christian, a religious song?” I’m not religious. Well, you heard one tonight called “The River” and the last chorus is “I was baptized in that same water, gave my soul to Jesus.” And I did. I was baptized in the Marais Des Cygnes River, the same river where my girlfriend Christine drowned, the same river where my girlfriend Laurie Maybrie was killed in a car wreck. This was where we would go to make out in high school. This was where we would have church socials, on the banks of the Marais Des Cygnes River. This is where you got baptized. And it’s ironic … I mean, it’s tragic. That’s where their lives ended and where my spiritual life began, so it’s a real gift. That song has been a real gift to me.